Young cellist brings ‘wild’ piece to Aspen |

Young cellist brings ‘wild’ piece to Aspen

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Alisa Weilerstein

ASPEN ” Alisa Weilerstein attended the Aspen Music Festival 16 of the first 18 summers of her life ” not counting the summer she spent here in utero. Both her parents ” violinist Donald Weilerstein and pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein ” put in 25 years on the faculty of the Aspen Music School. Alisa herself was a student in Aspen for six summers, beginning in 1995, when she was 13; her teachers were David Finckel, cellist with the Emerson String Quartet, and the late Dorothy DeLay, who made an exception and allowed Weilerstein to be the lone cellist in her violin studio.

Weilerstein recalls her summers here as idyllic, and she lists studying and concerts ” both attending and performing ” as highlights up there with hiking and swimming.

The familiarity with classical music hardly bred contempt. Weilerstein wasn’t just born into the culture; she insisted on being included in it. At 4, she begged her parents for a cello.

But what of those who have not been similarly immersed? America’s pop culture isn’t exactly saturated with classical music, and certainly not in a way that makes it look attractive to the typical teenager.

“That’s precisely the problem ” they’re not exposed to it,” said the 26-year-old Weilerstein from San Francisco, where she was frantically preparing for a performance of the Dvorak Cello Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony and conductor David Robertson. “I went to a public high school” ” Cleveland Heights High, in Ohio ” “and most of my friends there had never been to a classical concert. They only knew that it wasn’t cool to do it.”

But Weilerstein saw the gap between perception and reality. She played at a few school events with her friends in attendance, and was amazed by the enthusiastic response.

“Before that they always asked me, ‘Why do you play that kind of music? Doesn’t it put you to sleep?'” said Weilerstein, who lives in Boston. “But it’s quite the opposite.”

Weilerstein returns to Aspen on Saturday, July 5, for a performance with the Aspen Chamber Symphony and, once again, David Robertson. Weilerstein is playing a piece that could help change common ideas about classical music.

The piece, “Azul,” is by Osvaldo Golijov, who has been hailed as a new kind of voice in composition. A 47-year-old resident of Massachusetts, Golijov was born in Argentina to European-Jewish parents, and he absorbed the influences of tango and klezmer. After studying in Israel, he moved to the U.S. and showed broad tastes, collaborating with the Mexican rock band Cafe Tacuba, the gypsy band Taraf de Haidouks, Indian tabla player Zakir Hussain and the adventurous Kronos Quartet.

Among his more recent collaborators is Weilerstein. “Azul” was commissioned by the Boston Symphony, and premiered by cellist Yo-Yo Ma in 2006. But when Weilerstein was booked to perform the piece at New York’s Mostly Mozart last summer, the composer decided to drastically alter it, and brought the cellist into the process.

“He wanted to add different colors and characters,” said Weilerstein. “He was also inspired by a Pablo Neruda poem, ‘The Heights of Machu Picchu’ ” the idea that there’s a man on top of the mountain and he plunges into the earth. It’s a very emotional journey, very searching, then much darker and more dramatic, with episodes of total silence. There’s a wild cadenza, with two percussions, accordion and cello, and when he comes out of that mountain, it’s very triumphant.”

Weilerstein had her own wild experience with “Azul.” Golijov gave her the finished music just a day and a half before the premiere. But it ended in triumph; New York magazine named the performance the Best Debut of 2007.

Weilerstein doesn’t despair that relatively few people, especially in her age group, are attuned to such performances. She sees classical music ignored, but also she sees it embraced.

“I’ve discovered that, in almost every small town, there’s an orchestra. Montana has seven orchestras,” she said. “Places in North Dakota have music series. In Eugene, Oregon, I played a concert ” and not Beethoven’s Fifth, but contemporary music, John Adams ” in a 3,000-seat hall, and it was packed. That’s a tenth of the population on one night coming out to see classical music.”